Mud slopped around his ankles. The sky was grey and the rain drizzled down in a fine mist, light but soaking him through nonetheless. Felrak had tramped for around a kilometre this way. The water droplets acted like small prisms, refracting the tiny blinking lights of his tricorder display into little coloured snowflakes. He stopped for a moment, wiping the tricorder with a canvas sleeve, squinting to read the compass bearing. A small wooded area lay dead ahead. He would take shelter there for a brief time, but he did not have enough to rest for long. The going would be faster beneath the cover of the trees.
Atmospheric ionising radiation had greatly reduced the accuracy of the transporter, necessitating his beam down to Gorman III in an area devoid of any structures, organic or otherwise. Worse still, ship’s sensors could only establish a rough read on the omega molecule’s location. Felrak’s tricorder had improved things, but the signal now emanated from a position 80 kilometres east of his current muddy struggle. The rain dribbled off the top lip of his hood and the marshy ground sucked at his feet as he closed on the treeline. The thought of covering the distance in his current condition drew his mind back to Argosia. There, on the Bolr’yd Plains, the rain had fallen thick and fast. Not like this miserable precipitate spray. Then again, just about everything on Argosia had appeared to Felrak more vibrant than this. Here, the browns and washed out greens disappeared into the rain so quickly that even the speckled eggshell birds faded from sight in seconds. He squelched on.
The trees were scraggly, autumnal things. Their leaves hung low with the weight of moisture. The drips were fat now, the bedraggled canopy providing just enough shelter for Felrak to push back his sodden hood. He looked behind, towards the muddy flat from where he’d come. Raised furrows extended off into the fog, between them troughs of pooled rainwater. The uniformity of the ups and downs had been ruined by his clumsy, sliding footprints. Mud smeared where he had struggled to find his footing. It wasn’t this that concerned Felrak, however. The neat rows suggested agriculture, agriculture meant civilisation, and right now that meant trouble.
Felrak recalled Tursk’s briefing. Gorman III was mostly populated with a highly evolved reptilian species, known to the Federation as the Gürm. Research on the planet was so far confined to the initial mission sent to chart the system in 2361, when the planet was added to the long list of Federation protectorate species never to be interfered with until the development of warp drive. Of little anthropological interest and hardly on the verge of any scientific breakthrough, the Gürm were about as far down Starfleet’s list of research priorities a species might get. Felrak shook his head. Of all the places an omega molecule could have made an appearance, it had to be a damp corner of a pre-warp rock. He closed his eyes for a second, banishing a flash of despair, and that’s when he heard the voice.
“You! In the trees! Come out now, I can see ya!”
Felrak took off immediately, stumbling across pitted ground. Willowy branches whipped across his body, and the foliage became more dense as he ran. He stole a look behind him, to no avail. Leaves and vegetation surrounded him, brushwood snapped underfoot. He pushed himself forward, blind to what lay in front of him. His own heavy breathing filled his ears before he slowed to a walk. Reaching into his overcoat pocket, he flipped out the tricorder. A few chirps confirmed a large enough lifesign 200 metres away, but it was not closing any further on his position. Satisfied, Felrak pocketed the tricorder again and stepped forward, away from what could surely have been the most slapdash first contact ever conducted.
It felt tight at first. A gentle tugging, as if he’d brushed against a thorny briar. Felrak’s first instinct was to pull away and continue on without even looking down. As he pulled, the tightness grew. It began to cut into him and he cried out in pain. Collapsed on a mossy rise, Felrak looked in horror down towards his ankle. A thin wire looped around it, squeezing through the waxed material of his clothing. He had walked on too far, tightening the loop so much that he could now feel the restricted blood supply to his foot. The area quickly filled up with a fuzzy tingling, making it impossible to apply any weight. Felrak crawled back awkwardly, examining the wire. His knees sank into the spongy loam as he pawed at the undergrowth, looking frantically for whatever the wire was fixed to. A metal pole bolted securely to the ground lay in front of him. The wire was locked in tight.
A sharp stinging sensation now rose up. Still on his hands and knees, he looked around to see that in his struggle the wire had cut clean through his pant leg. Blood smeared out from under its grip, forming a slow trickle towards his foot. He reached a finger down, running it along the wire’s edge. There was a stickiness to it. He held the finger up to a bulbous eye. A white, glue-like substance coated it. His eyes drooped. He slumped back against the metal pole. The dull patter of the rain against the leaves surrounded him, and the soothing petrichor soothed his racing thoughts.
Salatryx leaned back against the side of the cart. The planks and wooden boards creaked in protest against the rivets that held them together. The wheels bumped and juddered on the road’s stony surface. He eyed the strange figure who lay, still unconscious, on the bench opposite. A forked tongue flicked out from between Salatryx’s sharp, fanged teeth. It just as quickly disappeared. A human might have thought Salatryx was distinctly reptilian, save for the three bony extrusions that ran the length of his skull. Humans were, however, entirely unfamiliar to these squinting eyes that scanned the evening murk.
“Arned-eight to Sandastrom.” The driver called out through the chill night air. The dull, rhythmic clopping of the six-legged burden beast was the only response. The yoke weighed down heavy on its shoulders. Its horned head lowered in a slow motion charge as it heaved against the weight of the cart. Muscles rippled underneath its blueish epidermal scales that were scored with countless marks from years of toil. It gave an impetuous huff, then lumbered on.
A series of stone built dwellings passed by, smoke rising from little chimneys that poked through their rough thatched rooftops. More eyes peered into the gloom as the cart continued on the road between the houses. The driver produced a long lighting taper and some sparking stones, briefly tying the reins to a hook that beckoned into the night beside him. Knocking the stones together, the sparks caught on the taper in a little puff of flame. He held it to the two lanterns mounted on the cart’s front corners, their thick wicks and mirrored backing producing just enough light to cast a soft glow on the road ahead.
Salatryx often marvelled at how different the town appeared in the dark of the eastingtime. After the sun had sunk it was almost as if he and others were no longer welcome on the streets. He felt it acutely; the sense that this was a foreboding time, of some strange malevolence that, while not immediately dangerous, was always there with you. He knew many others that felt the same way about these hours, of the stories whispered of disappearances and the strange creatures that stalked the nether roads. There lay one of those creatures in front of him now. He shook himself from these flights of fancy, grasping his rationality once again. This creature of the black did not appear threatening at all. It’s appendages were similar to his own, except this thing lacked a tail to keep its balance. It’s eyes too were strange, almost as if they rested on distended stalks that stretched from either side of its flattened face. No, this was no hunter of prey. He leaned over the body that still lay limp on the bench. Its mouth hung open, its teeth smooth and rounded as if purposed more for grinding leaves. The snare’s poison was meant for much smaller animals and Salatryx was surprised the effects had lasted this long. He could see the creature was now beginning to stir.
The muddy, potholed road had transformed into flattened cobbles laid into clay. The cart moved faster now, and the buildings had grown taller.
“Sandastrom, harrup!” The driver called in a clear trill that echoed along the street of darkened, shuttered windows. The beast’s hooves immediately ceased their onward trudge, and it snorted in acknowledgement. Two cloaked figures emerged from a doorway.
“What hour do you call this, Salatryx?” A voice hissed as the first of them hurried over to the cart, “And where’s the catch? The cart’s empty! Gone for the whole day and nothing to show for it. You’re a good for nothing nest-loafer, what are you even going to pay the driver with?”
“Shhhh. Quiet, you’ll wake the whole street,” Salatryx leapt down, standing between his wife and his quarry which now rolled off the bench and onto the wooden planks of the cart floor with a thud, “Look at this…” He waved her over.
“You’re insane, you mangy gadabout. You’ve really gone too far this time- that’s a person in there! Just rolling around on the floor like another animal, look at his leg!”
From the house next door came a stirring. The sound of muffled footsteps across creaking floorboards spilled out onto the street.
“QUIET Etrexia!” Salatryx nearly broke from his whisper, “Got caught in one of the snares, didn’t he? Get ‘im inside. We’ll have him fed and have him on his way tomorrow. Least we could do, yeah? Frestwyx, get over here, give us a hand.”
The young boy had hung back, confused by his parents’ hushed distress. On hearing his father’s call, the boy came running as his father began to heave the slumped body out from the back of the cart. The driver had dismounted too, surveying the situation, perplexed.
Salatryx leaned back, resting his weight on his tail and looping his hands under the strangely shaped man’s narrow shoulders.
“Here, take this. For your trouble.” Etrexia offered a few small metallic rods to the driver, who quickly pocketed them.
“Starfleet… Contact… Omesshhggh…” Felrak choked on his own slurred voice as he was dragged across the street. Frestwyx held open the door as the cart began to depart. Then, just as quickly as it had arrived, the commotion was gone from the streets of Sandastrom.
The rain had passed. The air outside was crisp with a dawn chill. Inside, the fireplace crackled with dying embers of once roaring flames that had warmed his bones through the night. Pain seared behind Felrak’s eyes as he forced himself to sit up. His eyelids peeled back, dry as a bone. He steadied himself with one hand, struggling to focus his eyes. Two woolen blankets had been draped over him as he lay sleeping, and his overcoat hung from the back of a rickety chair. His wet clothing had been removed and was also hung up near the mantelpiece, leaving Felrak to stumble out of his makeshift bed in only his undergarments. He tripped as he lurched over towards the overcoat. His stomach sank. The ticorder, his com badge, the transponder; all gone.
His eyes darted around the room. Felrak desperately tried to process the flood of information pouring in through them. That was when he saw it. Mounted above the fireplace on metal brackets, there lay a long staff. It’s gleaming point bifurcated into a halberd, the two curved blades angled like a steel claw. For a moment, Felrak stared transfixed. Then he remembered. On his return from Argosia, he’d read the archeological papers with interest. He’d seen pictures of the artefacts recovered from the dig sites all over the Federation. This weapon was once wielded by ancients of immense, indescribable power. This weapon was of the Tkon.